Over winter break, I read an excerpt of Paul Kalanithi’s to-be-published memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air” on The New Yorker’s website.
It was a well-written piece about his thoughts as he treated his final patient before he went through chemotherapy himself.
The book was published on Jan. 12, and has since been No.1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for twelve weeks. When I saw it for sale in the Stony Brook bookstore, I picked it up.
“When Breath Becomes Air” is a memoir about Kalanithi, who had a BA and MA in English literature, an MPhil in in history and philosophy of science and medicine and had spent almost a decade training in neurological surgery with a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience.
He was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at age 36.
But the book is not as depressing as it is powerful. Rather than to submit to the cancer or to make it the focus of his existence, Kalanithi decided to continue practicing neurosurgery, to have a child with his wife and to write
The book is about facing death honorably. In an email he sent to a friend, quoted by his wife in the epilogue, Kalanithi wrote, “That’s what I’m aiming for, I think. Not the sensationalism of dying, and not exhortations to gather rosebuds but: Here’s what lies up ahead on the road.”
The title of the memoir is a manipulation of “Caelica 83” by Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke. Throughout the book there are poetry, prose and biblical passages to characterize the emotions he felt.
As a neurological surgeon himself, Kalanithi was able to explain the cancer and the medical procedures he went through. At one point later in the book, I was amazed that he had survived, retained his memory and written about the complications that left him unconcsious for a full week.
“When Breath Becomes Air” begins with a foreword by Abraham Veghese who extorts the reader to “Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back.”
The prologue then throws the reader into the room where the cancer was diagnosed.
Part one, 100 pages long, takes the reader from the moment Kalanithi moved to Kingman, Arizona, to his residency, in full health.
Kalanithi writes about his love of reading and his search for what Walt Whitman called, “the Physiological-Spiritual Man.”
If the mind is the product of the brain, how does one live a meaningful life? He also wrestles with questions such as, “What makes life worth living in the face of death?”
Part two of the novel continues with his diagnosis and everything Kalanithi did from then until he passed away 22
He wrote about what mattered most to him. He wrote about the eight months he spent with his daughter, Elizabeth Acadia, to whom the book is dedicated.
The books ends with an epilogue written by Lucy Kalanithi, Paul’s wife.
She ends writing, “For much of his life, Paul wondered about death and whether he could face it with integrity.”
His last two years of his life, Kalanithi did not stop caring for his patients.
Kalanithi explains in his book that caring for others while living with this terminal illness and dealing with his own mortality helps him grasp mortality in an intellectual sense.
This inspirational story is a look at the human spirit.
Kalanithi shows that any obstacle could be looked at in a positive perspective.
Kalanithi shows the importance of not letting unfortunate circumstances, like cancer, hinder your ability to live your life to the fullest.
Kalanithi’s memoir is the 33rd book I read this year. At this point, “When Breath Becomes Air” is the best book I have read all year.